UK hip hop is a harsh mistress. Nostalgia for that old-school boom-bap remains, but those who don’t innovate quickly find themselves stuck in a loop of replicated beats and tired releases. The roots of the scene run deep, but you can’t expect to grow without breaking new ground. There’s only a few capable of walking that tightrope between paying homage to the scene and pushing out into new areas.
One man knows this better than most. Steven Ellington, otherwise known as Tha 4orce, has been walking that line for over 25 years.
To say Tha 4orce is a prolific figure in UK hip hop would be an understatement. 2017 alone saw the release of a new single every month, each accompanied by a pile of remixes, demo takes and video, all of which you can find on the Globalfaction YouTube Channel.
Compiling his monthly releases, the industry veteran dropped Setting Standards in December to cap off a year of work others would struggle to cram into a decade.
Lyrical heavyweights like Confucius MC, Dubbledge and Ray Vendetta make an appearance, but Setting Standards is also about on shining the spotlight on new talent. Artists like Lady Sanity, Arise King David and Teach anchor the album firmly in the modern day.
Cosmic Abstract (Ft. Teach)
The combination of old and new has been a cornerstone of Tha 4orce since first finding fame with Ronin in the late ‘80s. From his days performing with Boogie Down Productions to his stint on ‘Da Ali G Show’ to spearheading the CDJ revolution, Tha 4orce has searched out new challenges like a wolf stalking prey.
The evidence can be seen in every one of his 2017 releases. Even over a quarter of a century after first hitting the scene, tracks like Golden Darts – delivered with venom alongside Ray Vendetta – land like a gut-punch from Anthony Joshua. Intro number Set Standards does exactly what it promises, raising the bar and setting the tone for a career that reached new heights in 2017.
Golden Darts (Ft. Ray Vendetta)
With production and remix credits for the likes of Amy Winehouse, Sugababes, Ms Dynamite, Blackstreet, LL Cool J, Common and Busta Rhymes, it’s no surprise that on Setting Standards, that standard never drops.
It’s exactly what you’d expect from a man just as comfortable behind the decks as he is behind the mixing desk. From the laid-back bassy grooves of That’s How It Is (Ft. Gee Bag) to the ‘90s rat-a-tat percussion in On The Run (Ft. King Kashmere), every note, beat and bar is delivered with the confidence of a master at work.
Revolve Around Science (Ft. Big Cakes)
UK Hip Hop caught up with Tha 4orce to discuss the witnessing the birth of the scene, working with new artists and plans for the future.
[This interview has been edited lightly for clarity]
- So 2017 was a pretty prolific year for you – what inspired you to take on such a mammoth workload?
I had the idea and started working on the Setting Standards project when I was doing my Mind Tha Gap Radio show with People under Pressure music (which are still available on Mixcloud).
We were playing the best new hip hop each month, UK and Worldwide. P.U.P music had all the American side covered so I was mainly focusing on the UK and European artists.
Luckily, I had a good relationship with many of the artists that were active at that time, as well as meeting loads of new artists on the scene.
I wanted to do a project with some of my favourites, mainly to play on the show, so I approached artists with the concept of the project.
Some were down to do it, some turned me down, or didn’t make it happen for whatever reason.
But I always knew that the album would be Dopeness because all the MC’s where artists that I was a fan of and I felt a real connection with the music they were making.
- How has UK hip hop changed since you first arrived on the scene, and how did this influence Setting Standards?
I’ve always had the same approach when creating music, I’ve never followed trends, soundscapes or bandwagon styles.
I’ve been using an Akai MPC since 1989 when I was introduced to it by my father’s best friend who was a reggae producer and owned a studio in north London Wood Green.
I was making beats on an s900 and Atari ST ‘Cubase’ after being schooled and taught how to produced by the mighty Ronin Crew and when I saw the MPC being used to make the latest reggae rhythms from Jamaica, I knew I had to learn that machine, so I got my first MPC 60 and the rest is history. In fact, some of the beats used for Setting Standards are from the early 90’s, [while] some are from 2017, so I can confidently say my sound has always been a certain way and I’ve stuck with that evolving over the years, which seems to make the music stay timeless.
I feel if you create from a selfish standpoint, basically creating for yourself and not watching others your music can never sound dated and it will always come from a place that 100% represents you.
I give thanks that the artists I work with totally understand this and we all create totally unforced and naturally organically.
I think the scene has gone through many changes, but we are at a time now where artists can put out their music directly to like-minded people without a middleman [and make] small runs of art that allow you to connect directly with the right audience and hopefully break even each time, allowing you to freely create the music you want to without limitations.
- You’re known for giving a platform to up and coming artists – has working with the next generation of artists changed your approach to making music at all?
The new generation of artists inspires me. There are a lot of people who unfortunately think that they can rhyme or make beats/produce but have no identity of their own.
They sound like their favourite artist of the moment, straight cloning and make music for fame or financial gain.
Music has never been about that for me; it’s always been about trying to make a mark, standing for something and being different, which in a sense is what hip hop has always been about.
So when I see an artist that is doing music that stands out, it’s inspiring, and that immediately inspires me, inspires others.
There are a lot of artists in the UK making things happen right now, and I’m so grateful to be a part of that.
- You have a pretty impressive CV – With stints on radio, MTV, and Da Ali G Show (Not to mention producing for artists across a spectrum of genres) – are there any mediums/projects you’ve yet to crack that you would like to?
I’ve been extremely lucky and hope that 2018 will bring more positivity to all that deserve it.
Who knows what the future holds? All I know is more music more creativity and more power to the artists and people involved with the hip hop scene in 2018.
Onwards and upwards must always remain the motto, for all that deserve it.
- What are your plans for the rest of 2018? Anything in the pipeline?
I’ve got quite a few projects ready to go. Three albums were recorded over the same space of time.
Setting Standards is one, and I’ll be dropping the serving vinyl release of that very soon,
then I have a follow up solo album ‘Love and Other Things’ focusing on me as an MC with other producers Chairman Maf, Micall Parknsun, D’LUX beats, Ray West of Red Apples 45, Giallo Point and Cyclonious just to name a few. It was recorded for BBE records as a follow up to my Beat Generation series album ‘Mind The Gap Anthems V2’ plus I have a new group with my brother Cyclonious called ‘Uhuru’.
Let me say, that album I am extremely proud of. Me on production and cuts and Cyclonious on the mic. Look out for new singles dropping from that project also this year and the album will arrive when it’s time, as I’m a firm believer nothing happens before it’s time.
The roots of hip hop go deep, but it’s reassuring to know there are independent artists like Tha 4orce nourishing that soil to keep the scene growing.